newsweek: How do you know if Barack Obama is unhappy with what you're saying— or not saying? At meetings of his closest advisers, he likes to lean back, put his feet on the table and close his eyes. If he doesn't like how the conversation is going, he will lean forward, put his feet on the floor and "adjust his socks, kind of start tugging at them," says Michael Strautmanis, a counselor to the campaign. Obama wants people to talk, but he doesn't want to intimidate them. "If you haven't said anything, he'll call on you," says Strautmanis. "He's never said it, but he usually thinks if somebody is very quiet it's because they disagree with what everybody is saying … so Barack will call on you and say, 'You've been awfully quiet'." There are no screamers on Team Obama; one senior Obama aide says he's heard him yell only twice in four years. Obama was explicit from the beginning: there was to be "no drama," he told his aides. "I don't want elbowing or finger-pointing. We're going to rise or fall together." Obama wanted steady, calm, focused leadership; he wanted to keep out the grandstanders and make sure the quiet dissenters spoke up. A good formula for running a campaign—or a presidency.
It worked against Hillary Clinton, whose own campaign has been rent by squabbling aides and turf battles. While Clinton veered between playing Queen Elizabeth I and Norma Rae, Obama and his team chugged along with a superior 50-state campaign strategy, racking up the delegates. If the candidate seemed weary and peevish or a little slow to respond at times, he never lost his cool. But the real test is yet to come. The Republican Party has been successfully scaring voters since 1968, when Richard Nixon built a Silent Majority out of lower- and middle-class folks frightened or disturbed by hippies and student radicals and blacks rioting in the inner cities. The 2008 race may turn on which party will win the lower- and middle-class whites in industrial and border states—the Democrats' base from the New Deal to the 1960s, but "Reagan Democrats" in most presidential elections since then. It is a sure bet that the GOP will try to paint Obama as "the other"—as a haughty black intellectual who has Muslim roots (Obama is a Christian) and hangs around with America-haters.
Obama says he's ready for the onslaught. "Yes, we know what's coming," he told a cheering crowd as he won the North Carolina primary last week. "We've seen it already … the attempts to play on our fears and exploit our differences to turn us against each other for pure political gain—to slice and dice this country into Red States and Blue States; blue-collar and white-collar; white, black, brown." Hillary Clinton was not above playing on those fears. Refusing to concede defeat last week, she cited an Associated Press poll "that found how Senator Obama's support among working, hardworking Americans, white Americans, is weakening again." As Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson wrote: "Here's what she's really saying to party leaders: There's no way that white people are going to vote for the black guy. Come November, you'll be sorry." A top Clinton adviser, speaking anonymously so he could be more frank, says the Clinton campaign has actually been holding back, for fear of alienating other Democrats. The Republicans "won't suffer from such scruples," this adviser says. Sen. John McCain himself has explicitly disavowed playing the race card or taking the low road generally. But he may not be able to resist casting doubt on Obama's patriotism. And the real question is whether he can—or really wants to—rein in the merchants of slime and sellers of hate who populate the Internet and fund the "independent expenditure" groups who exercise their freedom in ways that give a bad name to free speech.
For Obama, the challenge will be to respond quickly and surely—but without overreacting or inviting an endless cycle of recriminations. Team Obama has been a model of tight, highly efficient organization, certainly in contrast to most presidential campaigns. The few tensions that have emerged have been between those who want to stick to the high ground and those who want to fight a little dirtier. (Such debates could intensify in a hard-hitting general campaign.) The campaign has at times been a little slow to fight back. Some of this deliberation is a measure of the candidate's personality. Obama disdains cable-TV talk-show shoutfests as trivial sideshows, and he tends to discount the seriousness of campaign gaffes and flaps. As a result, he was slow to denounce the most recent round of tirades by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. By failing to alert Obama to the gravity of the Wright fiasco, "I don't think we served him well," admits his chief strategist, David Axelrod.
But Team Obama has been consistently able to outstrategize the opposition, and it does have a plan for the coming mud war. In conversations with NEWSWEEK, Obama's aides have signaled their intention to put McCain on the spot. They note that McCain himself has been the victim of a smear. In the South Carolina primary in 2000, GOP operatives spread the rumor that McCain had fathered an illegitimate black child. Recently, when a reporter asked McCain, "Does it bother you at all that you might actually benefit from latent prejudice in the country?" he answered: "That would bother me a lot. That would bother me a great deal." And last week his wife, Cindy, told NBC News, "My husband is absolutely opposed to any negative campaigning at all." So if McCain's camp does try to exploit Obama's ties to the fiery Reverend Wright, the Obama-ites can question his sincerity—is he really the "Straight Talk" candidate? And if McCain can't stop others from the sort of innuendo and code that Republicans have learned to frighten voters, Obama can cast doubt on McCain's credentials as a commander in chief. ("In other words," says liberal political pundit Mark Shields, "they can say that McCain is either a hypocrite or impotent.")
Some early skirmishes reveal the strategy. In North Carolina, the state Republican Party aired a TV ad suggesting that Obama might be "too extreme" because of his ties to the Reverend Wright. McCain told the North Carolina GOP to take down the ad, but he said that he couldn't force the state party to act, and the ad stayed on the air. "I assume that if John McCain thinks it's an inappropriate ad, that he can get them to pull it down since he's their nominee and standard-bearer," Obama declared. A campaign spokesman said, "The fact that Senator McCain can't get his own party to take down this misleading personal-attack ad raises serious questions about his promise that he will run a civil, respectful campaign."
At the time of the Pennsylvania primary, the McCain campaign sent out a letter suggesting that Obama was the candidate of Hamas, the Palestinian terrorist group ("Barack Obama's foreign policy plans have even won him praise from Hamas leaders," read the letter). McCain, by contrast, portrayed himself as "Hamas's worst nightmare." (In fact, Obama and McCain have the same position on Hamas —no talks, no recognition, no outreach.) Last week Obama told CNN: "This is offensive. And I think it's disappointing because John McCain always says, 'Well, I'm not going to run that kind of politics' … For him to toss out comments like that, I think, is an example of him losing his bearings as he pursues this nomination."
Monday, May 12, 2008
No Screamers on Obama's Team
ever had a boss who screams? yeah. this story gives some details about how the obama team works together.